Steinmeier puts pressure on Burundi leadership

Frank-Walter Steinmeier [Estonian Foreign Ministry/Flickr]

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza is hoping to serve for another term. He feels he has been appointed by God himself. But there are demonstrations against him in Burundi, and the international community is calling for compliance with the 2000 peace accords.

Protests in Burundi and international appeals have not been able to dissuade the president of the tiny African country, Pierre Nkurunziza. Last weekend, he submitted his application to the electoral commission to run for an unconstitutional third term.

Since the governing party renominated him on 25 April, thousands of demonstrators have protested almost daily against the president. At least 20 people have been killed during the violent protests.

On Sunday (10 May) a young man was burned alive, who allegedly belonged to a militia close to the government – the Imbonerakure. There have been several lynchings against members of this militia, which is blamed for pressure and threats against Tutsis in particular.

Hundreds of demonstrators were injured and a government spokesman indicated that at least 600 government oppositioners were arrested. According to the United Nations, more than 50,000 people have fled the country.

Just three days after Nkurunziza’s renomination, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier sent a letter to his counterparts in Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, South Africa, Angola and the African Union to express his concern.

In 2000, the Arusha Accords ended a twelve-year civil war, during which at least 300,000 people were killed. The UN Security Council and the Secretary-General of the African Union, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, unanimously say the peace treaty should be respected.

“These negotiations should not be questioned,” Steinmeier wrote in his letter, which was acquired by Tagesspiegel. Under the Arusha Accords, a president is not allowed to stand for reelection after having served two terms.

Steinmeier continued by pointing out that the “escalating tensions ahead of the upcoming elections, which are accompanied by arrests and often violent intimidation from oppositionists, civil society and the general population,” are “worrying” the government, parliament and public in Germany.

“As a result, this stability is at risk – and with it the security conditions in the entire Great Lakes Region,” Steinmeier continued.

Here, the Foreign Minister was especially referring to Rwanda – 21 years ago roughly one million Tutsis were murdered there – and East Congo. In February, Steinmeier travelled to the region.

He was accompanied by Bundestag MP Kordula Schulz-Asche (Green Party), who experienced the start of the genocide in Rwanda first-hand and has also worked in Burundi.

After returning from the trip, she said, “at the moment, I am more worried about Burundi than about Rwanda.”

In his letter, Steinmeier indirectly threatens the government of Burundi with potential cuts to development aid. In light of the government negotiations in May 2014, he writes, “respect for democracy and the rule of law as well as respect for human rights” are “key criteria for cooperation” and remain “a benchmark for potential negotiations in the future”.

The President faces an opposing candidate

On Sunday, Agathon Rwasa announced his decision to enter the election race in opposition to the incumbent. Like Nkurunziza, Rwasa is a former Hutu rebel leader who took part in negotiations over the Arusha Accords.

Nkurunziza was appointed President by the parliament in 2005, which is why he argues he was only elected by the people once. But the 2010 elections were highly controversial. The opposition boycotted them.

As a result, the balance of power agreed in the Arusha Accords has no longer been in tact since the 2010 elections. Ever since Burundi has been a de facto one-party state. The Nkurunziza systematically restricted all freedoms.

Already in 2012, the International Crisis Group wrote in an analysis that the governing party’s control over all institutions had more or less made the Arusha Accords obsolete. The report, titled “Burundi: Bye-bye Arusha?“, said the governing party was using the security apparatus for its own benefit and was preparing constitutional amendments behind closed doors.

Neighbouring countries did not comment on the case of Nkurunziza, a born-again Christian who believes he has been appointed by God.

Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni has long since reformed his constitution to his own benefit and is currently in his third term of office. Chances are high that he will run for a fourth term.

Congo’s President Josef Kabila suppressed protests in his country this year, which were aimed against his intention to serve a third term.

Only Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame commented via Twitter, saying it is not smart to run for office if it is against the will of the people. Kagame is also well on his way to an unconstitutional third term. But in Rwanda, no one is protesting against his decision.

Kagame, however, has such control over his country that resistance is hardly to be expected. Rwandans see their president as a guarantor of stability and as a guarantor that the genocide will not be repeated.

Fear over the ethnic card

25,000 people have fled to Rwanda since the end of April, almost 18,000 to Tanzania and approximately another 8,000 to East Congo. In an initial analysis of the crisis, the South African think tank Institute for Security Studies (ISS) wrote that most refugees do not intend to return.

Many sell all of their belongings before leaving Burundi.

In light of the conflicts in the civil war, which were fought along the ethnic lines of Hutus and Tutsis, political observers inside and outside of the country worry that the ethnic card could be played in this initially political conflict. No one wants to envision what could happen as a result.

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